Thursday, June 19, 2003

Another writer whose poetry appears in Van Gogh’s Ear 2, as it seems to be doing virtually everywhere of late, is Eileen Tabios. On top of her work as an editor, publisher, blogger, vintner, Filipina activist, art critic, conceptual artist & promoter of hay(na)ku, Tabios either has a mountain of writing tucked away from her days as an executive in the financial services industry or else she must be the hardest working person on the planet. I have a hunch that we’re dealing with a serious Type A personality here.


Tabios’ prose poem “Helen” consists of twelve single-sentence paragraphs, although one of the paragraphs resorts to a favorite device of mine – the em dash – to create the typographic impression of being a single unit. The poem at heart is a dramatic monolog, although one written with such discipline that you can read it, as I did more than once, with total interest & pleasure without even thinking in terms of the theater of a projected persona.


Part of what makes the text work is that it has a killer first sentence:


Part of mortality’s significance is that wars end.


That’s one of those lines you can mull over for days, knowing you’ll never exhaust it. The lines that follow for the most part likewise stand on their own. Moreover, there is enough conceptual distance between them that the reader, in order to render it into a dramatic monolog, has serious work to do. The line / sentence / paragraph, for example, that follows the one above, reads:


Yesterday, I determined to stop watering down my perfumes.


The third paragraph connects with the second principally by referring to the first person:


Insomnia consistently leads me to a window overlooking silvery green foliage – tanacetum argenteum – whose species include the tansy which Ganymede drank to achieve immortality.


If the first thing that “holds” this text “together” is the two references to the first person, the second is the binary mortality/immortality, although they are not presented as though we were discussing a paradigm at all. Third, the title “Helen” & the reference here to Ganymede, classic ideals of heterosexual &  homosexual beauty, project a similar semantic field. Yet at this moment in the text, none of these connections are intrinsic or necessary, but rather are accumulating through what may appear to be incidental details.


There is a care & specificity here that is fascinating to watch, for example the choice of the Latin name, tanacetum argenteum, a European plant. The reason Ganymede – a.k.a Aquarius – might have been given a tansy is that, as a plant that grows in dry soil, it could retain water in an otherwise parched climate. Tabios takes considerable care with her diction – there is an ever so slightly elevated solemnity to words such as determined & consistently being deployed precisely as they are here. As a textural, as well as textual, strategy, it’s close to the prosodic restraint that another author of a poem entitled “Helen,” Hilda Doolittle, used to employ.


Just as Tabios has already set up one schema (insomnia) as a metaphor for another (immortality) that may at first seem rather at odds with it, this poem will be constructed around details that operate counter-intuitively on multiple levels, even as it will turn out in the final moments to be “about” nourishment – that tansy is not incidental. Against the discursive formality, however, the reader is presented with language that operates at different extremes, from the bathetic – But to be human is to be forgiven – to over-the-top depiction:


Soon, summer shall bring a snowfall of daisies across these leaves whose mottles under a brightening moonlight begin to twinkle like a saddhu’s eyes.


Summer always makes me think of snowfalls too.


Reading the poem over, as I have now a dozen times, my sense is that Tabios wanted to structure a narrative with an extraordinary degree of tension – it is as though she wanted to see just how far she could pull it apart without having the sense of its unity dissolve, to approach without crossing some intuitive breaking point. That’s not unlike the strategy in Zen gardening of pulling one stone out of place in order to create a “circle” with far more cognitive power than it could have were it, in fact, perfectly round. Thus, in the third sentence of “Helen” quoted above, the tansy is silvery green. This gives it a dynamic it could never have if it were merely silver or green alone.


Narration at the limits of cohesion is an especially challenging project. I remember once trying to read a novel in which every single scene was constructed by focusing initially on some detail – a lampshade, a wall socket, a crack in a windowpane – entirely extraneous to the narrative “action.” But it was in translation & you could tell that the translator really didn’t grasp what the writer was doing, so the process felt like trying to focus through a film of molasses & I gave up. Faulkner much more successfully does something similar in the Benjamin chapters of The Sound and the Fury, presenting “the story” in part (but only in part) from the p.o.v. of a developmentally disabled member of the family, incapable of comprehending the significance of anything. Unlike Faulkner, I don’t think that Tabios grounds what she does in “Helen” in psychology, which literally is why it’s poetry & not, say, fiction. Like Faulkner, though, she’s obsessed with surface & texture – they are what a reader experiences directly when confronting a text.


I like writers who take risks – taking responsibility for the whole of the text is for me the primary test of a poem. Tabios tries for more in one page than many other poets would attempt in 20. And she pulls it off.